Think of it as a $4,000 iPad for ambulances.

A touch-screen tablet computer called SafetyPad is a paramedic's constant companion at Hennepin County Medical Center.

Created by Open Inc. of Edina, the tablet replaces the often late and sometimes incomplete paper reports of ambulance calls.

From the moment one of HCMC's 25 ambulances starts to move in response to a 911 call, the handheld computer is part of the action. It receives information from the 911 operator, records an emergency patient's symptoms, heart-rate and blood oxygen, and offers checklists of key questions and treatment options, which vary depending on the type of emergency. Information assimilated, the pad calls ahead to the HCMC emergency room so medical personnel can be ready for the patient who's on the way.

"We're pushing the electronic patient record out to the ambulance," said Robert Ball, operations supervisor for Hennepin EMS, the emergency medical services of HCMC. "Our ambulance staff knows what they're supposed to do in an emergency, but the SafetyPad reminds them to document it."

The benefits extend to other area hospitals.

"When that patient chart is closed on the SafetyPad, the data comes wirelessly back to the computer servers at HCMC," Ball said. "No matter what hospital that patient goes to, a copy of that chart is sent there within minutes of the patient's arrival."

The electronic ambulance reports help HCMC in other ways, too, Ball said. The SafetyPad database software at the hospital searches ambulance reports for medical trends. If it finds more than six ambulance calls a day involving flu symptoms, it warns hospital officials of the potential for a flu epidemic.

In addition, the database helps speed up the hospital's billing cycle. It now takes about 10 days to bill an insurance company for an ambulance run, vs. 90 days when ambulance reports were on paper, Ball said.

That shortened cycle speeds payment. "Some insurance companies aren't keen on paying once you're 90 days from the event," he said.

For many ambulance services, tablet computers are a major step up, said Mike Vukovich, president of Open Inc. "Most of our customers have come from paper-based systems for gathering ambulance information, which were inefficient," he said.

Added Scott Streicher, Open Inc.'s director of operations, "They spent more time looking at a sheet of paper than at a patient."

But SafetyPad isn't the only ambulance tablet computer available. The St. Paul Fire Department, which used SafetyPad for about 10 years, switched three years ago to competitor Sansio of Duluth for its 13 city ambulances. The switch was made because the Sansio product eliminated the need to run an ambulance database; the information was instead sent to an Internet website. It's a feature SafetyPad doesn't have.

"That made it a little easier to pull out the information,'' said Matt Simpson, St. Paul's deputy chief of emergency medical services.

But SafetyPad has its advocates. James Salvia, project manager for ambulance computers at Boston Emergency Medical Services, says the tablets make sure records are kept, both for medical and legal reasons.

"A lot of ambulance emergency cases, such as shootings, stabbings and abuse cases, end up in court," Salvia said. "Everybody in emergency medical services knows that if you didn't document what you did, it's as if it never happened."

Open Inc. wrote the software for the Microsoft Windows-based tablet computer and the database of collected ambulance information. When it was introduced in 1996, portable computers were just becoming powerful enough for ambulance work, said Vukovich, who started the firm in 1993. HCMC bought the SafetyPad system in 2004 for about $300,000 and a $31,000 annual software maintenance fee. Today it's used in about 20 metro areas.

"We don't have a tremendous number of customers," Vukovich said. "But we have those with lots of emergency personnel to train, patient care reports to generate and data to analyze."

Some, such as Boston EMS, make more than 100,000 ambulance runs a year. HCMC makes about 60,000.

Open Inc. has 12 employees, most of them located close to major customers in case help is needed, Vukovich said. The privately owned company doesn't disclose revenue.

But Open Inc.'s business model and HCMC's ambulance automation are only as good as the tablet computers themselves.

"We're responsible for patient information," Streicher said. "The computer doesn't crash."

But ambulance work is fast and demanding, and the tablet computers do get dropped. HCMC's tablets come from a Florida defense contractor, and can be dropped from a height of 4 feet about 20 times without breaking.

"But all of our ambulance tablets have been dropped more than that," Ball said.

Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553